On the new Netflix series “Mind Your Manners,” etiquette consultant Sara Jane Ho shares her ambitious mandate: “Come with me, and you’ll know what to do anywhere, with anyone, in any situation.”
Both the reality show and Ms. Ho’s newly international personal brand advance the idea of etiquette as a tool for interpersonal harmony and a vehicle for self-improvement. Unfortunately, these skills have been greatly neglected over the past three years of isolation.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, I gave a lecture to an eager Chinese audience who were fascinated by the ritual of English afternoon tea. Many in attendance were planning on traveling to London in the future, and, of course, a posh afternoon tea was sure to be on their itineraries.
As I prepared for this talk, I was aware that my tea students might find the act of balancing a teacup– with its handles and saucer–as awkward as I saw the mastering of eating chicken wings with chopsticks.
To build confidence in my listeners, I edited my talk to the most basic skills. During my two hours of instruction, I shared a small list of suggestions that might help them overcome their anxiety – no matter where they dined. I like to think of these skills as my Swiss Army Knife of etiquette tools.
Many people look at etiquette as a list of rules. This attitude presumes failure and puts undue pressure on the diner. Success is more likely when we think of etiquette as a set of skills that can be used in myriad situations while allowing the diner to relax and enjoy the company of fellow guests.
Here is my list of tools you can use to ensure good manners in most teatime scenarios.
1. Entering a room. Enter the room with confidence while being aware of all that is around you. Leave negative feelings–such as feeling rushed or too busy–at the door. Pay attention to the well-being of your fellow guests. When in a foreign setting, use your peripheral vision to see how other diners behave and take your cues from their comportment.
2. Being Seated. In formal settings, pull the chair toward you and enter from the right. Place large purses underneath your chair or small purses in your chair. Nothing, including cell phones, should be placed on the table. You can prepare ahead for success by not bringing any of those items into the dining room. When you leave the table, exit from the right as well.
3. Napkins. Place your napkin in your lap as soon as you are seated. If you leave the table during the tea meal, place the napkin on your chair and not on the table. The napkin goes back on the table when the meal is finished.
4. Drink your tea like an expert. Add milk or sugar to your teacup after tasting the tea. Most specialty teas can be enjoyed without any additions. Milk is not added to green tea, oolong tea, or fruit infusions that contain citric acid. After using your teaspoon, place it at the top of the saucer, not on the table.
5. Finger foods. Small finger foods may be eaten without utensils. If the portion is over three bites, use your knife and fork to cut into small portions. Pace your meal and try not to finish before the host.
6. Be a good neighbor. After owning a tearoom for 14 years, I became aware of the level of noise generated by many guests. Large groups often dominated the room with their excited chatter or laughter. That exuberance is acceptable in a private setting, but it can be annoying to fellow diners in a public environment.
Etiquette training has given me, a farm boy from Kentucky, the confidence I’ve needed to enjoy tea comfortably in settings around the world. I never enter a new dining situation without my well-honed set of etiquette tools. Ms. Ho and I both agree with two pieces of advice: don’t leave home without your dining skills and, for goodness’ sake, keep those pinkies down!
Bruce Richardson is the co-author of Tea & Etiquette: Taking Tea for Business and Pleasure, as well as Children’s Tea & Etiquette: Brewing Good Manners in Young Minds. Benjamin Press publications.